Una Marson Born Too Soon

On International Women’s Day, Jamaica’s first playwright, Una Marson, was celebrated with the launch of two of her plays, Pocomania and London Calling. They had long languished in the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. The plays were finally published last year by Blouse and Skirt Books, in collaboration with the National Library. Founded by the formidable Tanya Batson Savage, this quirkily named press is a model of cultural enterprise.

17097941_10155044225027836_7543110098490594627_o

The Jamaican expression ‘blouse and skirt’ signifies surprise. And, perhaps, it is a shock to even Tanya herself that her small publishing house has grown so rapidly. In 2005, she established Blue Moon Publishing, now Blue Banyan Books, which she modestly describes on her website as “a small publishing ‘hut’ located in Kingston, Jamaica”.

The hut is quite spacious. It has room for specialist audiences. Blue Banyan Books publishes fiction for children. Blouse & Skirt Books publishes poetry and prose fiction for young adults and adults. Over the last decade, Tanya has published nine books, including the award-winning All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele.

RELATIVE PRIVILEGE

Una Marson’s extraordinary life is an inspiration for young women today. She accomplished so much in spite of the circumstances of her times.  Marson was born in rural Jamaica in 1905. This was a mere 40 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Not much had changed for poor black people by the beginning of the 20th century. Jamaica remained a fundamentally racist society, denying the black majority access to the basics for survival.

tumblr_matjv5m92T1rf692no1_400By contrast, Marson enjoyed a life of relative privilege as the daughter of a Baptist parson. She was educated at the elitist Hampton School, an institution about which she appeared to be conflicted. She was alienated from her white and brown classmates. But Marson did value the education she received at Hampton. It prepared her for the world of international politics in which she later moved with sophisticated ease.

After leaving Hampton, Marson went to Kingston. Her first job was with the Salvation Army doing social work. Then she worked with the YMCA. Soon she entered the field of journalism and in 1928, she started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which appeared monthly from 1928 to 1931 when it folded.

The name expressed the outward reach of Marson’s vision. She declared in the magazine, “This is the age of woman: What man has done, women may do.” Well, it’s not everything men have done that women should do. But you know what Marson meant. Women needed to break free from confining stereotypes.

SEDUCED BY HER BOSS

In July 1930, Marson self-published a collection of poetry entitled Tropic Reveries; and, a year later, another, Heights and Depths. Then came the successful staging of her play At What a Price in 1932. It’s a sobering story. A young middle-class girl from the country comes to Kingston to work as a stenographer. She is seduced by her boss, a white foreigner, gets pregnant and her life mash up. She has to go back to the country in disgrace.

The exploitation of women and girls in Jamaica is an old story. Admittedly, tricking an overage woman is not at all the same as sexually abusing underage girls. But the issue of vulnerability is similar. Some women are quite naive and expect men to behave honourably when they have absolutely no intention of doing so.

that-suspicious-memeYoung girls have to be taught to be suspicious. They cannot be left on their own to learn the cold truth that what they optimistically expect is not necessarily what they will receive. They often get much more and much less than they bargained for. At What a Price was enthusiastically reviewed in the Jamaica Times: “It is to her credit and ours and may be the beginning of a Jamaican dramatic literature.” It was.

AN EXCEPTIONAL LIFE

Soon after making her debut as a playwright, Una Marson left Jamaica for England. There she continued writing her “Autobiography of a Black Girl”, which she had started when she was only 25. Marson knew from quite early that her life was exceptional.

In London, she would become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In April 1935, she represented the Jamaican Women’s Social Service Club at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Her brilliant speech to the assembly championed both race and gender equality.

Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936 and became the first female writer for the radical newspaper Public Opinion. Her opinions were decidedly feminist. It is in this period that she wrote the play Pocomania about an upright, middle-class young woman who is trapped in respectability. She is almost freed by the kumina drums.

Back in London in 1938, Marson began to do scriptwriting for BBC radio. By 1941, this led to her becoming the producer of Calling the West Indies, a programme in which soldiers sent messages home. The following year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices. Writers from all over the West Indies shared their work on air. Marson had created a virtual literary community.

e89f906530813f26672e65b7392fcee0

I keep wondering how much more Una Marson might have accomplished if she’d been born 50 years later. There would have been so many more opportunities for her as a black woman of distinction. Who knows?

Advertisements

Obama’s American Nightmare

UnknownTHOSE CRAZY birthers who insist that Barack Obama is from a foreign country are not completely lunatic. The America of Obama’s youth is not the mainland United States (US). And it’s not mainstream. Hawaii, Obama’s state of birth, was not admitted into the union until 1959. That’s almost two centuries after the American declaration of independence from Britain, and only two years before Obama was born.

The most absurd ‘fact’ I’ve heard about Hawaii is that it has the highest racial minority population of any state in the union – 75 per cent, according to US census figures. How can the majority of people in Hawaii be counted as a minority? Only in the racist United States where whites consider themselves to be the definitive Americans! Forget about the indigenous people. White is the default race and all others are minority. That’s mainland racial politics. But in Hawaii, whites are the minority. That’s what the US census figures actually mean.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN TRAUMA

barackIn a 1999 essay for the Punahou Bulletin, published by his high school in Honolulu, Obama acknowledges the impact of the years he spent in his homeland: “The opportunity that Hawaii offered – to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect – became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”

Obama’s Hawaiian ‘world view’ is fundamentally at odds with racial politics in mainstream America. Born to a black African father and a white American mother, Obama doesn’t easily fit into a box. He isn’t simply African-American. The hyphen does make a difference. Obama comes to mainland America as an outsider whose personal history does not include the African-American trauma of enslavement and all it entails. Despite Michelle, it is a struggle for Obama to claim the hyphen.

ingodwetrustAnd African-Americans are struggling to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, especially since he’s president of all America. Obama is a biracial, multicultural American who embodies many of the ideological contradictions that constitute the US. The unofficial national motto asserts unity: ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many one’). But America is a divided society. Trusting in God seems to make no difference.

‘POST-RACIAL’ AMERICA

The cold-bloodied slaying of Trayvon Martin and the contested ruling that has freed his assailant have become yet another test case of the fundamental fairness of the US justice system. On all sides of the angry debate about what went wrong, there’s the shameful knowledge that race remains a provocative sign of both criminality and innocence in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America.

bsr005President Obama has been caught in the crossfire. In a much-analysed speech two Fridays ago, he revealed his somewhat ambiguous identification with Trayvon Martin and, more broadly, African-American culture. This is how he began: “I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but, watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.”

That’s the first problem. Obama’s initial pronouncement on the judgment, appealing for “calm”, appears to be his instinctive reaction. The expansion of his thoughts comes a little bit too late. And it’s really just a little bit too little. Obama shouldn’t need to watch the debate in order to realise that, as president, it was his duty to make a much more nuanced and expansive statement on yet another American tragedy.

Trayvon Martin's parents in Washington DCAfter affirming the “grace and dignity” of Trayvon’s parents in response to the contested ruling that freed their son’s killer, Obama tried, yet again, to identify with the victim: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.

“And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

RACIAL PROFILING

strange-fruitIt is precisely this set of experiences and history that Obama does not own. This “set” is not in his DNA. And it’s not only African-Americans who are looking at the issue through the lens of a history that doesn’t go away. Euro-Americans have their own set of experiences and history – of lynching, for example – that influences how they view the death of Trayvon Martin. Furthermore, people of goodwill, of all races, are agitated about the killing and the judgment.

Obama gives three examples of racial profiling of African-American males. In each successive instance, he becomes more and more distant. The first example is “being followed when shopping in a department store”. Obama says, “That includes me”.

The next example is “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars”. Obama says, “That happens to me”. Present tense. He quickly qualifies it, “at least, before I was a senator”. That’s a big leap away from racial profiling. Not to mention president.

Obama’s final example is “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off”. Obama doesn’t even pretend that he’s had that experience: “That happens often”.

The race of the generic woman is unmarked. If she’s white, it’s fear of the predatory black man. If she’s black, it’s the same thing. But, in the latter case, it’s now black-on-black crime. Why don’t we ever talk about white-on-white crime? Because white is normative and black is pathological?

Picture1_000In his expanded thoughts, Obama does give some prescriptions for the disease of racial profiling. He pays particular attention to the dilemma of African-American males. But he cannot identify with them fully, no matter how hard he tries to be Trayvon. It’s the hyphen again. Obama inherited his mother’s American nightmare. But he also possesses distant dreams from his African father.

‘I Have Outlived My Penis’

Ralph Thompson on the Calabash stage

That’s the far-from-flaccid opening line of the poem Ralph Thompson performed on the open mike at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held two weekends ago in Treasure Beach. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with all sorts of literary delicacies. And some delightfully indelicate offerings as well.

Rigor mortis of the penis is not exactly the kind of stiffness the average Jamaican man advertises. Most men who can’t stand firmly on their third leg tend to cunningly conceal that fact. By the time the deceit is uncovered, it’s usually too late for the disappointed partner to withdraw strategically. Some pretense at resuscitation must be made, however futile.

But, of course, Ralph is no ordinary man. He’s a poet. And he’s licensed to form the fool. The poet often wears a mask and speaks out of both sides of the mouth. You can’t assume that he or she is speaking autobiographically. No self-respecting Jamaican man, poet or not, would publicly declare, especially in front of a huge audience, that he, personally, is suffering from penile failure. Fun is fun and joke is joke. A confession of that delicate nature would definitely be taking a limp joke too far.

No lead in the pencil

My suspicion that Ralph was putting us on was confirmed when one of his friends (who must remain nameless) gleefully told me that it was he who had given Ralph that potent opening line. That may be true. But Ralph turned the single sentence into a witty poem. His punchline was deadly: writing had become a substitute for sex. The penis as pencil – with or without lead! Retooling becomes high art.

Willie Nelson

As it turns out, the confession of the death of the member is a clear case of ‘thief from thief, Massa God laugh’. A quick Google search revealed that the joke is a Willie Nelson original:

My nookie days are over

My pilot light is out

What used to be my sex appeal

Is now my waterspout.

With a name like Willie, Nelson must have taken firm measures all his life to ensure that his namesake remained lively. But, alas, not all ends come good. So even if it’s only tongue in cheek, inevitably it’s time for true confession. All the same, Nelson’s willie cannot be taken at face value. Like Ralph’s, it seems to be just lying low, waiting to spring poetically to life.

‘Di world no level’

What’s good for the poet should be good for the DJ too. But ‘jackass seh di world no level’. And it’s true. Every ‘chune’ a DJ chants is interpreted as a literal statement of fact by dim-witted cynics. Unlike the poet, the DJ is not allowed to wear a mask and play roles. So Buju Banton sings a humorous song about sending a driver to ‘drop this arizona round a Albamarle’. And it becomes a true confession of the artiste’s involvement in drug trafficking!

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding, the driver whose licence has now been revoked, chose to ride the ‘riddim’ of Buju’s hit. It became a very popular Jamaica Labour Party campaign song. Nobody in the party seemed to be bothered by the song’s ‘criminal’ message. Driver was taken for what it was: a clever song about the trade in ganja, a widely used recreational drug. Admittedly, for Rastafari, ganja is ‘creational’, infusing them with divine energy.

Peter Tosh, like many reggae artistes such as Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer who have been imprisoned for possession of ganja, made a lifelong plea for decriminalisation:

Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it

Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.

So you’ve got to legalise it,

And don’t criticise it

Legalise it, yeah, yeah,

And I will advertise it.

Cala-Clash

The high point of the Calabash festival for me was hearing Ronnie Kasrils reflect on his extremely risky work as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1960. In his memoir, Armed and Dangerous, published in 1993, he writes about what it meant for him, as a white South African, to participate in the freedom struggles of black people. He also wrote a biography of his wife, Eleanor, who shared his lifelong commitment to social justice. He called it The Unlikely Secret Agent.

Kasrils also talked about the role of reggae artistes like Peter Tosh in chanting down apartheid. We sometimes forget the global impact of our artistes who are often dismissed at home as mere criminals.

That’s precisely why Justine Henzell, who has inherited the film-making genes of her father, Perry, is producing a documentary for Jamaica 50 in which she includes coverage of reggae across the world, in the spirit of the iconic movie The Harder They Come.

Admiral

It was the Jamaican High Commission in South Africa that put Justine in touch with the hugely popular selector, Admiral, whose African Storm sound system plays every Thursday in Soweto. He was invited to clash with a local Treasure Beach selector, Andrew, at Cala-Clash  which is always a big hit at the literary festival.  ‘Admiral mash up di place.’  The week after Calabash, he was a guest selector at Stone Love.

This really is a small world. Kwame Dawes went to a conference in South Africa where he met Ronnie Kasrils. He was completely absorbed by the life story of this remarkable man. When Ronnie heard of Kwame’s Jamaican roots, he told him that his son, Andy, had been invited to Jamaica for a literary festival.  It was Admiral. Kwame immediately invited Ronnie to come as well.

Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London and discovered reggae through his Jamaican friends. In 1987, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the ANC liberation army ‘MK’ in Angola. On his return to South Africa, he started a dancehall show on the Voice of Soweto community radio and has not looked back. By the time I got around to buying Ronnie’s book on his wife, he’d left the festival. So I asked Admiral to sign it for me. He was most amused when I explained the meaning of our proverb, ‘If you can’t catch Kwaku, yu catch him shirt.’

‘Corruption of Language is No Cultural Heritage’

Morris Cargill

That headline was classic Morris Cargill.  In his Sunday Gleaner column published on October 29, 1989, Cargill mockingly made his case for banning ‘Patois’:  “The slackness and anarchy of Patois reflects itself [sic] in the slackness and anarchy of our society in general.  We are as we speak and we speak as we are”.

That ‘sic’ is not a bad dog I’m setting on Cargill’s duppy.  It’s a sign of a grammatical slip that could be mistaken for a typing error.  ‘Sic’ is Latin, meaning ‘thus, so’.    In this context, it means, ‘a so Cargill write it’.  The subject of the sentence is plural – ‘slackness and anarchy’ – so the form of the verb should also be plural – ‘reflect’.  And, of course, ‘itself’ should then be ‘themselves’.  The passive voice would have been even better: “The slackness and anarchy of Patois are reflected in  . . .”

I don’t usually draw attention to grammatical errors in public, except in the classroom.  I don’t set out to embarrass speakers who are not competent in English; not even duppies. I don’t idolize English. It’s just a useful tool of communication like every other language across the globe.   But since Morris Cargill used to make such a big point about English ‘correctness,’ I think it’s quite appropriate in this instance to show him up.

Bilingual Education

In that contemptuous column, Cargill attempted to ridicule the lucid arguments made by Dr. Mertel Thompson in support of bilingual education for Jamaican students.  For more than two decades, Dr. Thompson taught English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  She certainly understood the complexities of language teaching and learning in Jamaica.

Last week, Dr. Thompson was laid to rest.  At her funeral service, her son, Douglas, reminded the congregation of Cargill’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of the value of his mother’s academic work.  And he humorously predicted that Mertel would be giving Morris language lessons in heaven.

On Earth, Cargill paid no attention to the rigorous scholarship of all the linguists who have given clear evidence that Jamaican is, indeed, a language. For example, the Trinidadian linguist Mervyn Alleyne explains in his book Roots of Jamaican Culture how the new language developed:

    “[B]ecause Africans speaking different languages and coming from different parts of West Africa needed to communicate both among themselves and (less so) with Europeans (in this case English people, themselves speaking different dialects and coming from different parts of the United Kingdom), their language changed.  First the vocabulary is discarded, then the morphology, then the syntax, and finally the phonology; within phonology the old intonation pattern apparently lasts longest.”

Pure Jamaican

Louise Bennett

In less technical language, Louise Bennett’s Aunty Roachy gives a much more subversive account of the process.  She doesn’t use those big Latin/Greek words:  ‘vocabulary’ (words); ‘morphology’ (structure); ‘syntax’ (word order) or ‘phonology’ (sound).  It’s pure Jamaican:  “Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican dialect is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

“For Jamaica dialect did start when we English forefahders did start mus-an-boun we African ancestors fi stop talk fi-dem African language altogedder an learn fi talk so-so English, because we English forefahders couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa seh to dem one anodder!

“But we African ancestors-dem pop we English forefahders-dem!  Yes!  Pop dem an disguise up de English Language fi projec fi-dem African language in such a way dat we English forefahders-dem still couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa talk bout when dem wasa talk to dem one anodder!”

Unlike Aunty Roachy and Dr. Thompson, Morris Cargill had no respect for the Jamaican language.  He dismissed those of us who, as he put it,  “would like to see Patois retained as part of our cultural heritage, and believe that it can occupy that honourable place alongside the teaching of standard English”.

‘A lousy heritage’

   Cargill made his own position absolutely clear:  “I, on the other hand, take the view that if it is what is called ‘our cultural heritage,’ it is a lousy heritage redolent of slavery and that if we keep on saying it is a great thing, it merely encourages its continued use until it will finally swamp what remains of standard English in Jamaica.  Of necessity, most people have inherited patois but I see no reason to make a virtue of necessity”.

Frederic Cassidy

Making a virtue of necessity, I knew that it was imperative to respond to Cargill; and in Jamaican.  Too often we defend the Jamaican language in English.  I also decided to use the writing system designed for the language by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy.  My response to Morris Cargill’s column was published in the Sunday Gleaner on November 5, 1989.  This is how I launched my counter-attack:

Wat a nais bakra man Misa Cargill iz, iing!  Luk ou im so sari fi puor ignarant blak piipl!  No waant no huol hiip a bakwod piipl dis a waak-waak bout Jamieka a iikwal op demself, a gwaan laik se dem a taak langgwij jos laik im, a fuul op demself.  Nuo man!  Misa Cargill waant di huol a wi fi nuo wi plies.  Im waant wi fi nuo se wi kom iin laik pus an daag:  wi kyan baak an bait an mek naiz an shuo se wi beks, an kin wi tiit.  Bot langgwij?  Kolcha?  Wa niem so?  Wi no nuo dem de hai wod, maasa.  Dem briid a wod ongl paas out a bakra mout.

These days, the Gleaner would never publish on the editorial page a column written entirely in Jamaican.  Believe me, I have tried. We have flag independence. Yet we continue to suffer from mental slavery.  Claiming the power of the language we have created on this Jamrock would be a big step on the long journey to full freedom.